Social media as third places? Plea for a (re)definition of social spaces and places.


In 1982, Ramon Oldenburg and Dennis Brissett coined the term third places, referring to all physical places that are neither home nor work where people meet and enjoy each other’s company. Widely developed in the following years by Ray Oldenburg (1999, p. 20-40), this concept englobes various types of social places having the “capacity to serve the human need for communion”, and which all have eight characteristics in common: “neutral ground”, “leveler”, “conversation [as] the main activity”, “accessibility and accommodation”, “regulars”, “low profile”, “playful mood”, and “home away from home”.

Recently, technological and social changes extensively challenged the concept of third places. With the diffusion of Internet and the Web, many new online social spaces were created, each with different characteristics and features fulfilling a great variety of socialising needs. Various researchers have therefore discussed some of these online spaces through the lens of Oldenburg’s theory (1999), with different conclusions and ambiguities regarding whether or in which circumstances these online spaces can be considered as third places.

Investigating whether this concept can also explain newer social spaces is indeed important, since “old” concepts and theories remain in many cases helpful and keep their explanatory power even in new environments, which not necessarily need new concepts to be defined. Therefore, the concept of third places
should not be given up too quickly, as it might enable comparisons over long time periods.

Aim of this paper is to address these ambiguities and empirically examine whether the concept of third places can fruitfully be applied to describe social media. For doing so, an online survey was conducted, which consisted of 23 questions ranging from general uses of social media to socialising practices, as well as the role of physical places as socialising settings.

Oldenburg’s eight characteristics (1999) have been introduced to the 264 survey’s participants, which had to indicate how well each characteristic also described social media. It emerged that five third places’ characteristics have been identified in social media, though with quite different levels of agreements (neutral ground 58%, leveler 42%, accessibility and accommodation 61%, regulars 80%, low profile 38%), while three of them were not identified (conversation as the main activity 35%, playful mood
20%, home away from home 25%).

Participants perceived physical social places (i.e. third places) and social media, though possessing some similarities, as significantly different in their forms, visual characteristics, users and usages. Higher value was attributed to physical forms of socialisation, while online ones were considered more as a complementary form.

Consequently, I sustain that the concept of third places as described by Oldenburg (1999) can neither fully comprise nor describe social media, their users and the social practices that occur in them. The need for a new concept dedicated exclusively to the definition of social media is suggested, which I propose to define as fourth places, i.e. online spaces offering socialising opportunities which cannot be found at home nor at work, and which are significantly different from the possibilities offered in physical places (i.e. third places).